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"Go get her, big guy." Shelby hefted Patrick off the ball, placing him on the mat while she continued talking to Nathan. "Help me set up the snacks?"

"Only if you show me," exhale, "that belly-button ring of yours."

Shelby swatted his arm with her overlong sweater sleeve. "You are so bad."

Julia rested her chin on her knees and watched the two teens move to the refreshment table. She loved moments like these best in the meetings, times when the universality of human nature transcended disabilities and birth defects. The way she wanted it always to be for her son.

The door swung open, rain sheeting inside and startling Patrick. She patted his tummy and wished someone would close the door soon. Zach sprinted through, slamming the door shut.

Zach? What was he doing here? He'd attended Patrick's doctor and therapy appointments when in town, but he'd never gone to the family support groups.

Until now.

He must be trying to tell her again how he wasn't giving up in his quest to build a family together. Heaven help her, he was making progress.

Zach whipped his hat off and swiped water from his flight suit while he looked around the room.

Finding her.

How could he make her body come alive with just the sweep of his eyes?

Zach paused to speak with Rena, before stepping around the playing children on his way to Julia. "Sorry I'm late, Jules. Mission planning ran long."

He scooped Patrick from the mat and held him high overhead. Patrick squealed, then chortled through his wide-open smile.

"Howdy, Bruiser. What did you do today? Huh? Win a bottle-chug contest with your pals over there? Play a little ball? Watch some cartoons?"

As Zach rambled on with nonsensical chitchat to Patrick, realization seeped into her.

Genuine affection for Patrick shone from Zach's eyes. Pure adulation radiated back from Patrick's smile. There was a bond between the two of them that had nothing to do with her.

Julia's throat closed as the meaning of that simple, so beautiful shared smile swept over her. Zach hadn't come to the meeting for her at all. He'd come for Patrick, and the spontaneous gesture proved far more tempting than a calculated buy-out of a hardware store.

If only she could follow her own advice to Shelby about trusting that Zach would always be there for her.

If only she could be content with nothing more from him than friendship and awesome sex.

If only she didn't love him.

Chapter 14

God, he loved flying.

But today's mission wasn't about flying.

The crew bus jarred along the South American runway. Zach scanned the horizon, morning sun cradled between two mountains. He would take to the skies soon. Today, come hell or high water, he would find answers to Lance Sinclair's crash.

As the Squadron Commander, Zach accepted he would live with the weight of that crew's death on his shoulders for the rest of his life. But through this flight he hoped to find a sort of closure, lay Lance Sinclair's ghost to rest in his own mind so he could claim Julia as his own.

Nothing from the past between them.

Rows separated each member of his crew as they spread throughout the bus. No normal pre-flight banter or laughs rang through the tin can of a bus rattling along the asphalt.

The runway stretched ahead of them alongside a string of mountains, control tower perched to the left. Lush green peaks characteristic of the tropical landscape made flying through this airspace challenging—and potentially deadly.

Silence echoed. A funeral-like solemnity fogged through the compartment.

Grayson "Cutter" Clark, co-pilot for the mission, sprawled sideways in his seat, back against the window. The renegade flight surgeon, one of the few who flew as well as healed, had packed away his do-rag and CDs. No practical jokes or impromptu concerts today.

In the middle of the last row, normally chatty Bronco Bennett sat, looming stone-silent, boots planted, hands on knees and staring straight ahead. With his prior experience as a C-130 navigator, he would plot a detailed longitude-latitude log. Forget relying solely on computerized data. And finally the loadmaster, Jim Price, senior in service years, but still an enigma around the squadron when it came to anything other than work. The man lived for the Air Force and would go to any lengths to protect military honor.

Zach could identify with that.

Flipping his headset over in his lap, he bent and twisted the ear cups to adjust the fit, steadying himself in pre-flight routine. Damn things never stayed set right. He tossed them aside restlessly.

The gray aircraft loomed ahead of them, tip to tail one hundred and seventy-four feet long and nearly that long across in wingspan. Two days ago, they'd flown in medical supplies for a local village, then spent the next day mission-planning for the flight out when they would refly Sinclair's doomed mission.

Retracing the route was a common investigative technique in accident inquiries and had already been utilized. Twice. With the same conclusion. Pilot error—for lack of a better answer.

Pilot error. The epitaph every flyer dreaded.

Every man on the bus knew that accident report could have held his name. Their wives and children could have been the recipients of the front-porch visit from the commander.

Military spouses deserved the assurance that the Air Force would do whatever it took to retrieve the fallen body or honor of a comrade in arms. They'd all pulled combat time with Lance, trusted him with their lives as he'd entrusted his to them.

They wouldn't fail him now.

Zach grabbed his headset from the seat again, tweaking the fit. Julia would understand his silence about the mission once he explained. He'd worked like hell for five months to find something that would clear the accident report. Yeah, he'd kept quiet about more details than security required. But after a year where Julia was already juggling new baby with special needs and coming to terms with widowhood, he couldn't see that she needed to hear about him flying her dead husband's final flight.

Zach shoved aside niggling reservations. Now wasn't the time to question himself, not when doubts could shake his focus.

Had Lance allowed home-life concerns to rock his concentration?

No. Once they closed the hatch, training and instinct from thousands of hours in that seat assumed command. The flyer became one with the machine. Zach had to believe that or he was going to be in a helluva mess once he took to the skies.

The bus jerked to a stop beside the aircraft.

Mission time. Today, he would erase that "pilot error" blot. Today, for this crew, the outcome would be different from the results of the investigative team, because for these men, it was personal.

And for Zach, it couldn't get any more personal than the woman waiting at home for him.

"Okay, crew, let's roll."

* * *

"You sure did roll in late last Friday night." From the picnic table, Kathleen pinned Julia with a curious stare and mischievous gleam that promised a lengthy girl-chat to pump for information.  Strolling to the tire swing, Julia looked to Lori Clark by Patrick's swing for help and found nothing more than a second set of inquisitive eyes peering back. She reminded herself that the friends surrounding her in her backyard were a blessing.

A nosy blessing.

Julia pushed the tire swing dangling from the tree, launching squeals from the Clarks'

little girl and Ivy. "Nothing wrong with staying out late on a Friday night."

"Late?" Lori's brow puckered as she tapped a manicured nail to her lips. "I thought you two left the party early."

Kathleen reached into the infant seat on the picnic table and adjusted the lightweight blanket around her daughter. "Rumor has it, Julia didn't even finish her chocolate cherry cheesecake."

"Criminal." Lori pressed a hand to her lightly rounded stomach, pregnancy hormones obviously protesting the blasphemy of neglected chocolate. "Well, it's more than a rumor from where I was standing. Since you were home with little Tara, you missed the decided spring in the commander's step as he hustled Julia out of the Valentine's Dining-Out."

Kathleen hugged her sweat-suit-clad knees to her chest. "Tanner's a dead man for leaving that part out."

Every word of the good-natured teasing dinged Julia like a staple gun attacking her tattered emotions. She reminded herself they meant well. It wasn't their fault she was so damned confused. If only she had someone to confide in, but her best friend was the problem, so she couldn't exactly turn to him for help on this one.

Lori fingered her braid with a dreamy sigh. "So? Where did you go? A late-night romantic make-out at Patriot's Point? Or a lovers' stroll along the Battery Park with water crashing against the harbor wall?'

All those beautiful images didn't come close to the perfection of their windswept motorcycle ride. Except love hadn't played any part in Zach's plans. Hadn't he flat-out said as much?

She'd seen well how shaky a marriage could be without love. Lance hadn't loved her either, not like he'd loved the other woman. He'd stayed in his marriage out of duty. Sure, Zach had shown her all the logical reasons why they should stay together. But for once, she wanted to be more than someone's duty. She wanted to fill a man's life and every thought, totally.

A ridiculously romantic dream for a practical woman who preferred power tools for presents over perfumed roses.

Kathleen canted forward like Mata Hari. "Did I forget to mention they came home on the motorcycle?"

"Motorcycle?" Lori pivoted to Julia, braid swishing with the quick turn. "Ohhh, girlfriend, you have to talk now."

No doubt the Air Force had a first-class interrogator in Major Kathleen Bennett, and she wasn't walking away without her information. Of course she had an inside scoop since she'd scrawled out the prescription for Julia's birth-control pills.

Julia offered a token nugget. "Zach took me for a ride on his Harley after the party."

Kathleen tapped her watch. "You didn't get home until after two. Where did you go?


"Geez, Kathleen." Julia laughed rather than cry. "Do you and Tanner never sleep?'

"I was feeding the endlessly ravenous Tara."

Lori gave snoozing Patrick a final push before advancing toward Julia with a determined gleam. "Spill it. We want details."

Julia surrendered. Why not enjoy the memories and the sisterhood of sharing new romantic confidences without going into the deeper details of her marriage to Zach? Her months with him had taught her to look past the military regimen of pruned lawns and identical houses to see a communal spirit of support she hadn't experienced since childhood.

She might need that support soon.

Hugging her sweater tighter around herself, Julia dodged a tree root and plopped down beside Kathleen on the redwood bench. She waited until Lori's daughter Magda and Ivy scampered into the playhouse before continuing, "We took advantage of the time away from the children and stopped by his office."

"His office?" Lori frowned, then gasped, sitting across from Kathleen. "He'd just flown.

You know how they can be after a flight."

"Ahhh, of course." Kathleen's sage nod said it all. "And the poor guy had to wait through that party? No wonder he checked out early."

Lori rested her chin on her hands, a faraway look in her eyes as she gazed up at the sky.

"This one time, Gray landed early and rather than going home to wait for me to finish at work, he abducted me right out of a Feed-the-World strategy session I was conducting with two interns." A satisfied smile slid across her face. "I would have felt guilty, but those college kids brainstormed their hearts out to impress me while I was gone, uh, taking the supply closet."

Kathleen leaned back, her elbows on the picnic table. "If Tanner so much as looks at an airplane, forget waiting to make it home."

"Ohmigod," Julia said. "You two didn't..."